Where would poets be without a miserable childhood? I have noticed that people take a certain delight in telling about it. Sometimes they try t0 top each other, “You think that is bad, listen to this!” The miserable childhood is a wellspring of poetry. Having your parents and siblings appear in various guises through out you whole life is like being haunted. I would miss my ghosts; that is why poets should avoid therapy.
Among comedians, Rodney Dangerfield was the poet of dysfunction. “My dad advised me to start at the bottom. He was teaching me how to swim.” Miserable neighborhood, school, married life, even miserable dog. A couple of years ago I had my students write what I called the Rodney Dangerfield poem. I offered a prize and had them compete over who was the most miserable. They also had to include one Rodney Dangerfield joke in their poem.
I wrote along with them, and you can see the results of my misery in one of three poems I have in the online journal, Diode, Spring 2008.
Recently I found an online journal whose only theme is dysfunction. Dysfunction is its broadest interpretations. Slant: a dysfunctional e-journal of poetry & prose.
At first you might think this is narrow and rather depressing, but the theme is endless, full of humor and a dark beauty. The poems in Slant have one other thing in common: most of them are really knockout poems. Usually I find one or two poems, in any journal, that impresses or inspires me. In Slant I find poem after poem in the socks-knock-off-department. I think it is hard to get into, since they want you to only submit three poems and will only accept three poems. Check it out.
Speaking of Rodney Dangerfield makes me think of humor in poetry. One aspect of humor is comic timing; this can be managed by line breaks, spacing, empty space, sequence, rhythm, and repetition. Once, when I was reading to an audience a poem of mine that I did not know was funny, people kept laughing at certain repetitions in the poem. Before each repetition there was a pause. For instance, as in take my wife……please. One of the greatest jokes ever by Jack Benny, who always played the miser, consisted of the long, long silence after a crook demands, “Your money or your life!”
Speaking of one-liners, how about those one-line poems? Most of the ones I hear are not poems at all, but quips. The difference is, a one-line poem resonates beyond itself. It is a metaphor. I heard Lola Haskins read here in Charleston recently and she recited a few that that seem to me to be poems.
Here a few of Lola’s one-line poems:
The sun’s dust and the tip of my third finger are the same
A mountain is what the yogi has done with his life.
What is the sea’s surface but a five year old, shaking glitter?